February 23, 2016 11:14:00 AM
JACKSON -- A new statewide school district could take control of faltering local districts and keep them indefinitely in hopes of improving academic performance under a bill advancing in the Mississippi House.
The House Education Committee approved House Bill 989 on Monday.
The achievement school district would take over any district rated F for two straight years, starting with yet-to-be released state ratings for the 2015-2016 school year. Because those ratings will feature a new test, it remains unclear how many districts will meet that threshold. Under the latest rankings, which allowed districts to use their best rating from the two previous years, there were no F-rated districts.
State Superintendent Carey Wright is supporting the concept, saying that Mississippi's current system of state takeovers, called conservatorship, isn't working. Historically, the districts taken into conservatorship have typically had poor academic performance, but that's usually not why they've been taken over. The state has usually assumed control because a district is financially broke, driven by political conflict between school board members and a superintendent, or violated state accrediting standards.
A seven-member board would run the proposed district, with three appointments each by the governor and lieutenant governor. The state superintendent would appoint one member. That arrangement could be a point of controversy. Last year, senators favored allowing the state Board of Education to run the district directly, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said last week he still favors that arrangement. Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, though, said the Mississippi Department of Education favors a separate board.
Districts could be run by charter school operators approved by Mississippi's separate Charter School Authorizer Board, Busby said. A district would remain in the achievement district until it scored a "C'' rating or better for five years, plus a majority of parents and school employees voted to return it to local control. That means that as long as one or the other of those groups rejected a return to local governance, the district would stay under state control.
Rep. Gregory Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, questioned whether, if the district took over mainly African-American districts, that would raise echoes of segregation.
"If we take them from an F to a C and give them better opportunities, I don't care what that says," Busby told reporters after the meeting.
While the district was under state control, the special school board could not raise property taxes. The bill was originally structured so that the district could take over individual low-performing schools, but state education officials persuaded Busby to change it to include only districts.
Some states, though, have developed structures that spark takeovers because of poor academic performance. Busby said Mississippi's is modeled on Tennessee's achievement school district, which thus far has taken over schools mostly in Memphis, sparking complaints about loss of local control. A recent report there has found that schools given alternative turnaround aid by the local Memphis school district fared better in one year than schools taken into the achievement school district. The report cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from one year of data, but opponents of Tennessee's achievement school district quickly filed bills to prevent it from taking over any schools.
"If we try something different and fail, it's better than not trying anything at all," Busby said.
Online: House Bill 989: http://bit.ly/1QylGjY
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